Last Wednesday the New York Times and ran this this photograph of demonstrators filling a street in the Paris during a one-day national strike organized by the French labor unions.
The photo was front page above the fold but not on the web site at mid-morning (if it had ever been there). For the most part, visual coverage of the strike at the Times and elsewhere focused on the disruption experienced by commuters–in short, on its effect on everyday activity rather than its purpose of affecting national policy. (The unions were protesting a government proposal to raise the retirement ages from 60 to 62 for the minimal pension and from 65 to 67 for a full pension.) Subsequently, coverage of any sort has vaporized, as if the controversy in France had lasted only a day and had no relevance in the US anyway.
I’m not going to discuss the ins and outs of social democracy in France, because this photograph exposes something far more fundamental: the invisibility of labor in the United States. To put it bluntly, to imagine a photograph like this being taken in the US, you might as well be in an alternate universe.
Estimates of the turnout in France range from 1.12 million to 2.5 million people. That is the equivalent of a turnout of roughly 5 million to 11.5 million in the US. Can you imagine what would have to happen to provoke that kind of response across America? Certainly not the rollback of the Social Security retirement age, which recently was pushed back from 65 to 67 with about as much discussion as you would have when changing the clocks to Daylight Savings Time.
In this photograph, however, the massed response to another neoliberal assault the quality of life of ordinary citizens seems entirely to be expected. Although the demonstration stretches into the vanishing point of the picture, as if it were endless, the woman looking down on the crowd isn’t in any way put out of joint by its presence–she might as well be stepping outside to check the weather on a balmy day. And although the woman, like the viewer, is set above the fray by being positioned on the balcony, that viewpoint is also connected with the demonstration by the parallel lines of the balcony and street and by the colors of the red flowers above and orange insignia below. Instead of setting individuals and mass movements at odds with one another, here they are coordinate. Indeed, one can imagine the demonstrators being advocates for the woman, who may well be in her 60s.
That can be imagined, that is, as long as the photograph is about France. Its presence in a US newspaper makes it an oddity or an allegory. It is an oddity because one has to cross the Atlantic to photograph a strong union movement. It is an allegory because in the States it acquires a double significance: it both depicts the labor movement that exists in France and marks the empty space left by its demise in the US.
The image goes further still. By looking at what is there, I realize how amidst the pervasive neoliberalism of US public life, not only the unions but labor itself has been rendered invisible. In its place is a phantasmic world of derivatives, debt-to-GDP ratios, stock market indexes, and even unemployment statistics–but not labor–and a refashioning of everyday life through bar codes and on-line shopping supported by globalized production–but not labor. Many people are still doing the work, of course, but the work and the people doing it are disappearing from public consciousness.
And when labor is no longer visible, capital is that much closer to becoming completely dominant. The disappearance of all other values cannot be far behind.
Photograph by Christophe Ena/Associated Press.